Espreso. Global

Putin will wage war against Ukraine as long as he can – diplomat Bryza

27 March, 2023 Monday

Matthew Bryza, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, in an interview with Espreso TV channel, told what is behind the negotiations between Russia and China and when will Putin stop the war

Xi Jinping's visit to Russia had formal and informal parts. What could Xi Jinping and Putin have actually agreed on, not just talked about? And what, accordingly, could Putin have asked of China? We can guess that it was military assistance, financial assistance, and more. But what did Xi Jinping want to get from Putin?

We don’t know because there really hasn’t been much of a statement that seems believable other than the joint statement that didn't say much. So what Washington was waiting for was any sign of whether China would call for a ceasefire in Ukraine. At this moment with Russian troops occupying so much Ukrainian territory, there's no word on that. Also what is absent is any statement officially about energy cooperation and specifically the power of the Siberia 2 pipeline. It seems it was president Putin's goal going into this meeting, to get a commitment from Xi Jinping to go ahead with that huge natural gas pipeline and we've heard nothing. So all we've heard in general is that China and Russia have a strong partnership. And I must say just the fact that Xi Jinping went to Moscow suggests it's difficult for China to play the role of a mediator if China is not going to at least do the same and Xi Jinping would then need to come to Kyiv and meet with president Zelenskyy.

Zbigniew Brzezinski's prophecy about the possible creation of a great cooperation between Russia, China and Iran is beginning to be realized. This is an extremely dangerous scenario, but to what extent will Xi Jinping and China be ready to make this big, literally global, chessboard move?

At this point it’s too early to tell whether the warning of the latest big news about a sort of a strategic triangle among Iran, Russia and China is going to be realized. Because of China it's not clear what Beijing's goals are. Clearly Russia wants that, and clearly Iran would like that as well. Iran is desperate to increase its trade with Russia, with China, with anybody. But what's not clear to me is China's ambition. Yes, as we've been discussing, Xi Jinping went to Moscow and that signifies that China is leaning towards supporting Russia in this war. But if you look at the 12-point statement that China put out recently about Russia's invasion of Ukraine – that statement alone does not necessarily indicate support for Russia. The fact that China brokered peace or the resumption of normalized relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran, that doesn't mean that China is taking Iran's side. On the contrary, it means China is behaving or trying to behave in an independent way, otherwise Saudi Arabia wouldn't allow China to play that mediator's role. I think there's quite a bit of tension still between Russia and China when it comes to Central Asia and that tension is only increasing. So at this point the big story is that China’s influence is growing in the Middle East, in Central Asia, and it's trying to increase its influence in Europe by maybe being a mediator between Ukraine and Russia.

Russia has found itself in a situation where it is becoming a raw material supplement to the Chinese economy. It is not clear how far this process will go, but in any case, it is clear what Russia needs from China: Russia needs certain, possibly international, guarantees, in particular through the UN and the Security Council. At the same time, Russia needs economic assistance, Putin also needs weapons and military supplies for his army. How far is China willing to go to meet Putin's demands?

That's the huge question. In Washington, the biggest question is whether China is going to provide military equipment and ammunition to Russia, and so far Beijing has shown no sign of being ready to do that. It could do so at any time, but also many Chinese companies seem to be wanting to try to avoid the sanctions of the United States and the European Union as well. That suggests to me there's a certain degree of caution in Beijing with the Chinese government and especially Xi Jinping not wanting to be seen as fully supporting Russia. But China is very happy to sell certain goods, especially involving computer chips that Russia cannot get from elsewhere. Russia needs to rebuild its weaponry, and China has been very happy to buy Russian oil at a steep discount. Both of those things are in China's self-interest. China is pursuing its own interests here. 

And the last point is again going back to the 12-point statement that China put out. In the United States and Europe, the focus on that 12-point statement has been that China is tilting towards supporting Russia because it calls for a ceasefire. But if you read carefully that statement, what is written in that text is China hopes for a de-escalation of tension and eventually a ceasefire which you could interpret to read that China is saying – we understand that Ukraine needs to keep fighting for some time to fulfill the very first point of that statement, which is support for the territorial integrity of states and non-intervention in their domestic affairs. So I think again that Xi is weighing how much benefit can China gain for itself economically and strategically from giving Putin some of what he wants. But Xi clearly is not giving Putin everything that he wants.

 In general, Putin's dilemma was quite simple, and in his conversations with Xi Jinping, he could most likely present his vision of the formula for a Russian-Chinese agreement or deal. So, Putin needs to be kept in power, and Xi Jinping made an extremely telling gesture: Xi Jinping said that the Russian people are likely to support Putin in the next presidential election. There will be no elections in Russia as such, it is clear that Putin will reappoint himself. That's the first thing. Secondly, Putin could most likely tell him: well, we need Ukraine, and if you need Russia and Russian resources, they can be yours.

I see that the underlying bargain on the economic side between China and Russia is that Russia actually needs China to keep buying their energy, and China needs low-cost supplies so there's a mutual interest there that has really nothing to do with Ukraine's territory. I don't think that Xi Jinping is likely to say okay, to help you Vladimir Putin, take as much of Ukraine as you wish because he hasn't done so. Xi has consistently warned against the use of nuclear weapons, and again in his recent 12-point statement, the Chinese government criticized any threats to use nuclear weapons and to endanger the safety of nuclear power plants. And that's clearly referring to Putin's threats both to the power plants and to the use of nuclear weapons. So I don't think there'll be such a bargain. Xi Jinping wants to see this war end as soon as possible in Ukraine, but also wants China to keep on benefiting from cheap Russian energy and from the ability to sell some Chinese goods that are not getting to Russia because of sanctions.

I would like to ask you about the so-called Chinese peace plan. It seems to exist and at the same time it does not exist in reality. Although Putin and Xi Jinping must have discussed the Chinese and the Russian visions. In particular, about possible scenarios.

So, the most important element that's not in the text is a call for Russia to withdraw its troops from all of Ukraine and certainly withdraw the troops that invaded after February 24th. That suggests that Xi Jinping is really trying to quietly be supportive of Russia or at least of Vladimir Putin. But the other elements in the plan are also implicitly critical of Russia and are calling on Russia to do things differently. Again as I mentioned, the 12-point plan embraces the fundamental international legal principle of the territorial integrity of states and their sovereignty. Xi Jinping knows and Vladimir Putin knows that Putin has gravely violated this core principle of international law and of the UN Charter by invading Ukraine in an unprovoked way which began in 2014. So to have that as the first point of the peace plans shows that Xi Jinping is not blindly supporting Putin. But now he realizes that for there to be a peace, a just peace, of course implicitly Russia has to pull all of its troops out of Ukraine because otherwise Russia will be violating Ukraine's territorial integrity. So it's a very subtle phrasing of opposition to Russia's invasion frankly of Ukraine. 

It would be a much better statement though if the Chinese were to come out and explicitly say that Russia must pull its troops out. And then as I was saying before, the call or the condemnation of threats to use nuclear weapons and to undermine the security of nuclear plants, that's an important criticism of Russian behavior and then the call for the ceasefire is not in the plan. It's a call for a reduction of tension and gradual movement towards cease fire. If Xi wanted simply to support Russia 100%, he would say we call for an immediate ceasefire and troops should remain in place wherever they are, but that's not what the statement says. Xi understands that Ukraine is going to keep on fighting, of course, to regain its territory that's been invaded and is now occupied by Russia. So I'm not so pessimistic about that Chinese 12-point statement, but it's not yet a plan, it's just a statement of principles that need to be negotiated between the parties and lead to an actual peace plan. This is exactly what we did over decades with Nagorno-Karabakh. We came up with after a long time of negotiations with a set of basic principles that the leadership of Armenian Azerbaijan agreed in January of 2009. But then they needed to negotiate those and expand them into an actual peace plan and peace treaty. And even after the second Karabakh war in the fall of 2020, the two sides are still negotiating their final peace treaty to this day. So this takes a while.

This war of Russia against Ukraine is neither political, nor territorial. This is an existential war between Russia and Ukraine. Unfortunately, Putin has raised the stakes so high that it is unclear how to influence de-escalation from the Russian side. But we also have to be clear: if there was no joint statement or no joint plan agreed upon between Putin and Xi Jinping, it means that they either did not agree at all or agreed on everything.

It's definitely not a territorial war and I think we should all condemn what the governor of Florida said when he called it a territorial war and he said that the US has no vital national interests in the outcome of that war. He's running for president, although he hasn't  declared yet. And I think that's reckless and frankly simply stupid what he said. This is, as you said Mr. Borkovskyi, this is an existential war for Ukraine, Putin has said so, so this is a genocidal war. It's an attempt to exterminate Ukraine as a country and the way he's carrying out the war, he's trying to murder the peaceful population. So this is a genocidal war, and it needs to be constantly thought of as such because if Russia, God forbid, was successful, of course it's an ultimate tragedy for Ukraine but for all of us because Georgia would be next, as would Moldova as would the Baltic states. And I am certain, although I've never spoken with Xi Jinping, that he does not want to see a war of extermination fought on Ukraine's territory. China has a strong trading relationship with Ukraine. On top of that, I think Xi Jinping knows that if Putin is left to run freely, he is going to broaden the war, may use nuclear weapons and create massive, to put it politely, instability not to mention catastrophe throughout Europe. And China really wants to have strong trading relations with Europe as well. China has its expansionist ambitions in East China, in the Indo-Pacific region. From China's  perspective it's simply restoring its territorial integrity by wanting to retake Taiwan. From the rest of our perspective that would be also a war of aggression but China has no interest in seeing mass catastrophes across Ukraine and much of Europe. So I don't believe there's any chance that Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin agreed on all of these things when they met during the closing of the Beijing Olympics just before Putin invaded. In fact at that time Putin expected a war to last just a couple of days, with the capturing of Kyiv and then regime change with the ending of not only Volodymyr Zelenskyy's government but perhaps his life as well. I don't think there's any chance at that point Putin expected this war to last this long and so Xi Jinping didn't either.

President Zelenskyy is in an extremely difficult situation. What are the possible scenarios for proper behavior on the part of our top political and military leadership? On the one hand, there is an endless international perimeter of negotiations that can go on for many more years without ending in anything. On the other hand, Xi Jinping will put forward certain formal or informal proposals. There is a clear position of the US president and the State Department, so America also has its own position.

The answer is simple. Success on the battlefield. Military success breeds diplomatic success. What Putin is hoping for as we all know is that the United States, Europe, Canada and Japan will lose patience and focus on supporting Ukraine. I think Putin is praying that Donald Trump will be re-elected US president and will stop supporting Ukraine. That's the worst thing that can happen. What needs to happen is that Ukraine launches its military offensive and is successful and pushes Russian troops back and puts Putin in a situation where it is absolutely clear he cannot win, there's no chance he'll ever win on the battlefield. Even if, God forbid, somehow Ukraine's military was defeated, the Ukrainian nation will fight forever in partisan warfare. So Putin needs to realize that. And at that point the world will really listen to Ukraine when it comes to the negotiating table. But as the White House has said continuously, Washington and its allies need to keep supporting Ukraine, giving it the military support it needs, to help Ukraine prepare for that moment when there will be serious negotiations and when the diplomatic path can succeed, and when the world will indeed listen to Ukraine's perspective. And I think the world is listening to Ukraine's perspective. 

There are some selfish business people who want the war to end so they can go back to buying Russian natural gas and oil, they don't count, and in Germany they've been totally discredited. There are some Republicans like Ron DeSantis who choose not to understand how the world works, either if they're simply ignorant or they're for their own past, something that's not in the US natural interest. They're a minority so Ukrainians enjoy the strong support of all of his friends and allies, and it needs to have a decisive set of victories on the battlefield this spring.

Putin has found himself in the honorable status of a criminal wanted by the International Criminal Court. Muammar Gaddafi and others had a similar status in their time.

I don't think president Putin is ever likely to get arrested if he ends up being in a country that is party to the International Criminal Court and I think it's a shame that the United States has never signed on basically by not joining and making itself a party to the Rome statute. Then the United States undercuts the value or the meaning of this designation of Putin as a war criminal. Having said that, it is a gigantic humiliation and the only retort of Maria Zakharova in the Russian foreign Ministry is that we're not a party to the international criminal court and its findings mean nothing to us. But they know what a huge condemnation and embarrassment to all of Russia this is. You cannot hide from the Russian people that their president was determined to be a war criminal or indicted at least as one by the International Criminal Court. 

Russia is not saying that the International Criminal Court is controlled by the United States or the European Union, maybe the government seeks to imply that, but I think the vast majority of people who are paying attention know that that's not the case. How could the United States be controlling the ICC when it clearly has chosen never to join it because it doesn't want its own citizens to be subject to its jurisdiction. So I think the practical impact of this is simply to weaken Putin even more politically and geopolitically and thereby strengthen the morality of Ukraine's position and that then should translate into continued support economically, politically and militarily by Ukraine's friends for Ukraine. 

Where I live in Turkey, there is a real disconnect between the real politic desire of Turkey to see Ukraine not lose and that's why Turkey has consistently supported Ukraine with the drone sales, with other military technology, with its constant condemnation of the violation of Ukraine's territorial integrity dating back to 2014 and the annexation of Crimea. But at the same time Turkey has not joined sanctions against Russia as we all know. And when I talk to Turkish people here, especially in business, they don't talk at all about the morality of what Putin is doing to Ukraine and murdering civilians, etc. I think that the fact now, however, that Putin is recognized as a war criminal by the ICC is beginning to awaken people here in Turkey to the moral element of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, and I think that it is already here translating into greater government support for Ukraine.

It's clear that Putin is not going to back down. At least it looks like he won't. But the question is how many resources will be available to him, given that he is gradually starting to develop and revitalize his defense industry. Russia is probably preparing for a longer, protracted military scenario.

My guess is Putin will wage the war against Ukraine as long as he is able to, and I think the signals are out there that he is decreasingly able to do that. So he mobilized 300,000 men, sent them to the front, and they failed to make any significant progress in their offensive.  Yes, they've utterly destroyed Bakhmut but that's not a strategic gain. The price has been enormous, and Ukraine has been amazingly successful in draining all of that military strength out of Russia and that's just going to continue. Russia will never defeat Ukraine's military. And we see economically that Russia's budget deficit is growing rapidly, they're burning through their foreign currency reserves, and they've apparently been unable to produce more precision guided missiles and seem to be running out of them. That's why they've been repurposing the S-300 air defense missiles to terrorize the Ukraine civilian population. 

They do have, however, enormous numbers of artillery shells that they will keep using simply to destroy as much of Ukraine as they can. Putin will stop I think when the European Union succeeds in procuring its 2 million artillery shells for Ukraine, when those get onto the battlefield for Ukraine and when the US is able to transfer more hardware to Ukraine. Eventually we're going to see more fighter jets after Poland took the bold step of sending its old MIG-29s, and I hope eventually we're going to see the US F-16s. But continuously regardless of what happens with fighter jets we're going to see I think more and more potent Western weapons entering Ukraine's arsenal. 

It's going to take time to wear down Putin's will to keep fighting but if the US and its allies continue what they've been doing, providing Ukraine with increasingly capable weaponry. If they keep doing that, eventually Putin will simply be unable to continue the war. He's going to run out of manpower too at some point. Not there yet, but it'll take some time, but the time will come.

Author: Antin Borkovskyi

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